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Artist’s Books: Each a Miniature Gallery

Books characterised by their vision, their handmade qualities, the finished book tactile and beautiful

Lizzie was perpetually disappointed that the heroines were admired not for their deeds but for their beautiful hair or tiny feet...

Oxford University libraries are full of early devotional tomes, enriched by illuminated letters and hand-coloured woodblock prints. And here the publishing industry grew after the invention of typography and the printing press in the 1450s.

As printing became first commonplace, and then mechanised, the intimate link that had once existed between artists and illustrators, writers and book binders back in the fifteenth century became ever weaker. As a reaction to this, in the late 20th century a new art form emerged, that of ‘artist's book’ characterised by their vision, their handmade qualities, the finished book both tactile and beautiful, each page containing the visual depth you find in other art forms, but allied with a series of messages, or a narrative, each book a coherent collection of art in its own right. Produced only in tiny numbers, artist’s books became highly collectable.


Artweeks artist Lizzie Waterfield was eight when she first read Louise May Alcott’s classic Little Women, adoring the March family, especially feisty daughter Jo who sat in the attic eating apples and writing stories. And so began Lizzie’s love both for reading and for creating things that other people can enjoy too. Lizzie’s favourite characters were always gutsy and determined girls, and although she loved fairytales, at six foot tall by age sixteen, she was perpetually disappointed that the heroines were admired not for their deeds but for their beautiful hair or tiny feet. And thus How to be a Fairytale Princess was born, a handmade book full of delightful collage imagery, which set out to gently challenge the stereotypical fairytale heroine. And of Lizzie, working at home in a tiny upstairs room surrounded by a mess of a million tiny scraps of cut paper and possibly eating apples, surely Ms Jo March would be proud!

From the choice of paper to the techniques of folding, cutting and binding, paper engineering contributes to the aesthetics of these unique works of art, in a way that sometimes pushes the traditional definition of the word book. Here at this interface of art and books, each creation tells a story that invites the reader to interact through both its content and format.

Heather Hunter, another maker of artist books, studied Psychology and Visual Studies; worked in Fashion, Toy Design and Model making, and found making unique artist books a natural progression, writing the text, producing the images, and then printing and binding them, enjoying the constant visual and tactile surprises of their three dimensional structures.

‘Successful artists’ books’ explains Heather, ‘utilise the whole design and production process to reinforce the message of the subject matter. Shapes, folds, text patterns and materials can be used to nudge the viewer in the direction of the artist’s message, the whole a coherent statement from the outset.’

Heather is artist in residence at Turn End Gardens in Haddenham which are a great source of inspiration for her at all times of the year and she regularly opens her studio so that visitors to the gardens can touch, feel and discuss artists books with her. Inspiration, however, can come from anywhere and she’s currently exploring lace as poetry and rhythm, a reaction to a display of lace items at Thame Museum.

More recently Heather has also ventured into altered books, an art form where a book is changed to a new 3D shape, its appearance altered and a new meaning bestowed through cutting, tearings, and folding the pages and often adding to it to create a sculptural piece of art.  

Unique books are enjoyed as a tactle experience during open studios event  as standard book shops have regular sized shelves and do not like 3D bookworks!  Alternatively they are found in artist book shops of which there are very few, are displayed in galleries or are shown at Artist book fairs.

And it’s no surprise that Oxford, surely the world’s leading city of the book, hosts the world’s longest running artist book fair (biannually) with international exhibitors including private presses from the UK, the Americas, Russia, Asia, and continental Europe, to which fine press dealers and collectors travel from around the globe alternate Novembers looking for quality and innovation in ideas, materials and format.

Awarded a prize at the last Oxford Artists Book Fair, anther Thames artist, Christine Tacq, creates alternative worlds between her book covers, paying homage to original tales that have inspired her and retelling them in her own thought provoking way. She enjoys the process of printing, and the self-expression that it enables, celebrating the freedom that printing gives her.

Her latest book, the prizewinning Printess and the p, is Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale ‘The Princess and The Pea’ reimagined, and while the words follows the storyline you’d expect, the illustrations carry far deeper meaning and show, over the course of Printess’s restless night, you can follow the story of the invention of printing as Printess tries to get messages out to the wider world.

It’s the marriage of carefully chosen text and illustrations, painstakingly followed through from the initial concept to the binding of a finished title, each page a work of art in its own right. These books may take a year to make – and there are only 25 copies of Printess and the p in existence. However while this seems a very long time in this age of ‘Control P’, these are books made to last the test of time, and we can expect them to still be treasured in 300 years, a modern day equivalent of the revered books in Oxford’s Bodleian library or the work of William Blake currently on show at the Ashmolean.

One of Christine’s previous artist books pays homage to Blake – it’s a thought provoking parallel-translation in English and French of Blake’s ‘Memorable Fancy’ from his illuminated book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) in which he describes the six chambers of a printing house in Hell and the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation.

William Blake used a method of relief printing, a printmaking process where protruding surface faces of the printing plate or block are inked; while recessed areas are left ink free and printing a matter of bringing the plate firmly in contact with the paper, revolutionising printing so images and words could be printed together, bringing with it an enormous range of new possibilities.

Running until the 1st March, The Ashmolean’s exhibition examines William Blake’s life (1757–1827), politics and work as a printmaker, painter, author of the ‘prophetic books’, a series of long interrelated poetic works drawing upon his own personal mythology, and his extraordinary technical innovations in the field of printmaking and the illuminated book.

To discover more about his legacy in the form of today’s artist’s books, you can visit Lizzie Waterfield, Heather Hunter and Christine Tacq during Oxfordshire Artweeks (2-25 May).

- Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks


Top Image - Heather Hunter's altered book with birds

Bottom Image - Lizzie Waterfield's 'Wait to be rescued'